Biblical origins

By Levi Clancy for לוי on

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Mesopotamian influences

Mesopotamian cultural traditions are embedded in the literature and customs of many civilizations in the ancient Near East.

Mesopotamian culture was known by the Israelites. A fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh inscribed on a clay tablet was excavated at Megiddo in northern Israel. Scribes in Jerusalem during the fourteenth century BC read and wrote letters in Akkadian, the lingua franca of much of the Near East; and King Solomon claimed knowledge (I Kings 4:29-34) that suggests familiarity with Mesopotamian scholastic traditions.

Mesopotamian influence can be seen in rituals, oracles, prophecy, myths and law described in the bible, as well as in its psalms, lamentations and wisdom literature (proverbs).

Biblical stories of the Flood reflect knowledge of similar narratives in the Babylonian myth of Atra-hasis, and rituals designed to remove impurity by transferring pollution to a goat, described in the bible (Lev 16) are found also in Hittite rituals and Akkadian incantations.


According to the Bible, Israel was a theocracy with Yahweh (Israel's god) as king. The prime function of the earthly monarch was to maintain order and justice and to preserve and protect the kingdom. The king was the nation's political figure, and royal ideology together with its symbolic representations illustrated the king's role and stressed his legitimacy. The royal scepter, the ivory decoration inlaid in the throne and other furniture, and the royal seals were symbols of kingship, demonstrating the outward similarity of Israel to its Near Eastern neighbors.

Winged disc

The winged solar disc pictured in Assyrian-period art (often with the image of the god within the orb) represents the manifestation of divine presence. In Israel, god is described as speaking to Moses from within a cloud (Exodus 33:9-11). Assyrian images of the deity Ashur, shown grasping a bow or shooting at an enemy, recall the biblical sign of the covenant, "I set my bow in the clouds" (Gen 9:13) and the concept that Israel's god protected his people in times of war, "the lord looked down upon the egyptian arm from a pillar of fire and cloud, and threw the Egyptian army into panic" (Exod 14:24).

Sacred tree

Depictions of a sacred tree are found throughout the ancient Near East. Royal, cultic and mythological figures in Assyrian art are often shown performing purification or fertility rituals associated with the tree. In the bible a tree of life and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:4b-3:24) were related to eternal life, wisdom and sexual awareness. Although the tree imagery appears to reflect a common tradition, no direct link can presently be established between the biblical theme and the image of the sacred tree in Assyrian rituals.


Cherubim were the Israelite counterpart of kuribu, winged guardian spirits often fashioned in silver, copper or gold and placed at the entrances of Assyrian temples and cult rooms. The biblical image of a winged guardian creature with a human, lion, bovine or eagle face (Ezek 1:5-11), human-shaped hands under its wings, and either two or four legs may be compared to the sphinx, a winged creature with a human head and lion bod depicted in Egyptian art and on Levantine ivories.

In the bible, cherubim are associated with sacred spaces. These images were woven into curtains placed in front of the ark of the covenant (Exod 26:31) and covered with gold to adorn the wooden walls and doors of Solomon's temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 6:21). Two gigantic, gold-covered, olivewood cherubim with wings outspread covered the ark as part of the throne of god in the inner sanctuary of the temple. Cherubim were also described as guardians of the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24).


The storm god, Baal-Hadad, was revered as a fertility deity who brought all-important rains to the dry Levant. He was often depicted wearing a headdress with horns (symbolizing a bull) and grasping a thunderbolt and a mace or axe to overcome the forces of chaos. The worship of Baal existed in Israel (I Kings 16:31-33) and was vehemently opposed by the prophet Elijah (I Kings 18).


The goddess Asherah was the wife of El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon. SHe was most likely the mother of the gods referred to in Canaanite myth and later Jewish tradition. Nude depictions of the goddess in figurines and clay plaques found in numerous archaeological sites indicate her role as a fertility goddess.

Worship of Asherah in the form of a sacred pole or stylized tree is well attested in the bible (I Kings 14:15 and 15:13) and her cult was both banned and condemned (Judq 3:7). According to two recently discovered inscriptions, at least some Israelites considered her to be the consort of their god Yahweh.

Moses story

Floating down the river is an assimilated theme from a Mesopotamian myth.